Financial Times: MBA kicks British sportsman into US big league

V P Blog

Source: Financial Times

by Jonathan Moules,

A former professional footballer from the UK now promotes soccer in America

Jake Edwards soaks up the cool ocean breeze drifting through the window of the president’s office at the United Soccer League headquarters in Tampa, Florida. “It’s another day in paradise,” he coos.

It is a long way from the muddy pitches of Burton Albion, Wrexham and the other lower league English football clubs that were Mr Edwards’s workplace most weekends and weekday evenings during a 10-year career as a striker.

He was born in Manchester but spent much of his childhood in the US thanks to his father’s various postings around the world as an aircraft engineer. This included four years on a sports scholarship at Virginia’s James Madison University, majoring in kinesiology, the study of physical activity.

Mr Edwards is clearly grateful he could play a sport he loves for a living, even stepping out for Exeter City on to the hallowed turf of Old Trafford for a third round FA Cup draw against Manchester United. He and his team mates managed to hold their much larger rivals, who Mr Edwards followed as a child, to a nil-nil draw. “A dream come true,” he says.

When Mr Edwards passed his 30th birthday, however, he felt ready to hang up his boots. He sought advice on what to do next and a friend of his wife, who had been to Stanford Graduate School of Business, recommended an MBA.

“After 10 years of playing, I was getting a bit tired of the weekly routine,” Mr Edwards admits, adding that the business side of the clubs he played for had already started to interest him before he decided to retire from the field.

He applied for the general MBA at Warwick Business School. This highly ranked course was near to where the Edwards family were living at the time. Mr Edwards also liked the relatively high proportion of people on the course, who, like him, were starting their MBA later in life.

Sporting MBAs: from the pitch to the lecture hall

The opportunities for those in sport who are also interested in getting a business education have increased in recent years. Those with a passion for the beautiful game can take the football industries MBA at the University of Liverpool, or the masters course run by Real Madrid Graduate School, a partnership between the world famous Spanish football club and the privately owned higher education institution, Universidad Europea.

Being a former footballer among those who had spent all of their careers in offices made Mr Edwards a curiosity among his classmates, he says. It was a reversal of his experience as a player, where he was often the only person in the squad with a degree.

He points out that although there are some players in England that have gone on to higher education, even done a masters degree, they are a limited number. “I used to get the mick taken out of me for reading scientific books,” he recalls.

Rather than go to the pub after training sessions, Mr Edwards would spend time with the teams’ commercial directors and marketing managers.

“I would spend a few hours a week with them, seeing how they do things and getting some input,” Mr Edwards recalls. “I started to really get very interested in the business side of the sport.”

Had he not studied for an MBA, Mr Edwards feels he might have been pulled into coaching. But he was keen to move on from the cycle of training and travelling to games, especially since it would involve being stuck on the sidelines rather than on the pitch.

“That wasn’t that interesting to me any more,” he says.

Completing the MBA was the “career-changer” he needed, exposing him to a host of new industries and the opportunity to get into the business of sport.

He found a link back to the sports industry at Warwick in the form of his academic adviser, Sue Bridgewater, who ran management training courses for several UK football managers on behalf of their union, the League Managers Association.

“She has been a big asset and resource to me over the years,” Mr Edwards says.

Jake Edwards playing for Exeter City in an FA Cup tie against Manchester United at Old Trafford in 2005 © Getty

His first job after graduation was for London-based management consultancy Octagon. He was put to work designing ways to monetise fan interest in various sporting franchises — something he says has helped him develop the US Soccer League.

After returning to live in the US with his American wife in 2012, Mr Edwards was introduced to the new owners of the USL, NuRock Soccer Holdings, which had bought the then struggling league from Nike three years earlier. At the time it had just 11 teams, mainly on the east coast, but Mr Edwards was impressed.

“I was also struck with the opportunity to create a football league structure like in the UK,” he says.

He wrote a strategic plan for the ownership group and they hired him as executive vice-president to focus on growing the business. Less than a year later, he was promoted to the top job.

The USL now consists of 30 professional teams across the country and is three years into a partnership with the nation’s top tier Major League Soccer. One and a half million people came through the turnstiles at USL games last season, a 33 per cent increase on the previous year.

“The sport is booming,” Mr Edwards says. “I look at this as a long-term play.”